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How Hungry is the Selfish Gene?


  • Anne Case
  • I-Fen Lin
  • Sara McLanahan


We examine resource allocation in step-households, in the United States and South Africa, to test whether child investments vary according to economic and genetic bonds between parent and child. We used 18 years of data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, and compare food expenditure by family type, holding constant household size, age composition and income. We find that in those households in which a child is raised by an adoptive, step or foster mother, less is spent on food. We cannot reject the hypothesis that the effect of replacing a biological child with a non- biological child is the same, whether the non-biological child is an adoptive, step or foster child of the mother. In South Africa, where we can disaggregate food consumption more finely, we find that when a child's biological mother is the head or spouse of the head of household, the household spends significantly more on food, in particular on milk and fruit and vegetables, and significantly less on tobacco and alcohol. The genetic tie to the child, and not any anticipated future economic tie, appears to be the tie that binds.

Suggested Citation

  • Anne Case & I-Fen Lin & Sara McLanahan, 1999. "How Hungry is the Selfish Gene?," NBER Working Papers 7401, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7401
    Note: CH

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Becker, Gary S & Tomes, Nigel, 1976. "Child Endowments and the Quantity and Quality of Children," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 84(4), pages 143-162, August.
    2. Sheila Krein & Andrea Beller, 1988. "Educational attainment of children from single-parent families: Differences by exposure, gender, and race," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 25(2), pages 221-234, May.
    3. Case, Anne & Deaton, Angus, 1998. "Large Cash Transfers to the Elderly in South Africa," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 108(450), pages 1330-1361, September.
    4. Behrman, Jere R & Pollak, Robert A & Taubman, Paul, 1982. "Parental Preferences and Provision for Progeny," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 90(1), pages 52-73, February.
    5. Bergstrom, Theodore C., 1993. "A survey of theories of the family," Handbook of Population and Family Economics,in: M. R. Rosenzweig & Stark, O. (ed.), Handbook of Population and Family Economics, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 2, pages 21-79 Elsevier.
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    JEL classification:

    • I3 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty
    • O1 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development

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